Sunday, March 24, 2013

What life is not

Life is not fair.

This concept is so crucial to your future success that you should stop reading this for a minute and just let it sink in:


We humans are big-time freaks of nature. For some reason we expect life to be fair. Animals sure don't. Throw a bag of breadcrumbs to a flock of ducks some time, and watch what happens. Usually one large-and-in-charge duck will shoulder her way to the front and vacuum up every crumb she can reach, leaving squat-all for the others. I have never seen -- and I never expect to see -- the other ducks quack angrily, form a protest group and start agitating for equal crumb distribution. "Fairness" is a foreign concept in the animal kingdom. So why do we expect fairness, when nothing in nature suggests that fairness is part of the natural order?

If you say, "Well, we're not animals. We don't just have to bow to the natural order and accept injustice in our lives," you're right. But wait -- there's a crucial difference between "fairness" and "justice." Justice is treating all people equally under the law. (We're not all that great shakes at justice either, since we're imperfect, but that doesn't stop us from giving it our best shot.) Fairness, on the other hand, is giving all people what they think they deserve. But if you think about it for thirty seconds, that's impossible. "Fair" is a completely subjective concept that changes from person to person (and sometimes from minute to minute); what seems completely fair to me is probably unfair to you.

Too many people waste too much of their short lives obsessing over, chasing after and bitching about fairness -- whether it's the average joe complaining that life never gives him a break, or the pampered heiress fretting over the wealth, privilege and status she enjoys, but did not earn. Look, life is inherently unfair, and there's no proven way to make it fair; in fact, all historical human attempts to make life fair have only screwed things up worse than before.

Well then, obviously I believe people should just give up and resign themselves to their fate, right?

Hell no! Have you learned nothing from this blog? Resignation is just another kind of laziness. You're here to learn and improve, to push yourself to become a little better each day, not to float aimlessly in the stagnant water of "fate." And I believe that if you're willing to work at it, you can change your fate, regardless of the hand you were dealt.

Feel free to use my life as a case study. Was it fair that my parents were compelled to raise six children on a salary that rarely rose above the poverty line? Was it fair that I was tormented by bullies all through grade school for the crime of being smart? Was it fair that my father died in an accident when I was twelve? Was it fair that I inherited the twin joys of depression and diabetes? I'd say not. But having gone through all these things, I've discovered that, fortunately, fairness is not a necessary prerequisite for happiness.

If you believe, as I do, that the primary reason for our being is to test and refine our souls, you might already have considered the idea that maybe life is unfair on purpose, as a way of motivating us to get off our slacker butts and do some good. If life were completely fair, or if we believed it were fair, we'd never do squat to improve our lives or the lives of others. But the irritant of unfairness can push people to change the world for good, to show kindness and compassion to others, and to create beauty that otherwise never would have existed.

Here's a possibly familiar story: before leaving on a trip, a rich boss went to three of his employees and lent each one some money, telling them to invest it and make more for him. But he didn't share it out equally; he gave the first employee five silver talents (that's about 335 pounds of silver -- not exactly chump change), the second two silver talents, and the third one silver talent. While the boss was away, the first two employees worked hard and doubled their money, and the boss was very pleased with their industry. But the third employee was obsessed with fairness -- he only got 67 pounds of silver to work with when the other two had so much more, his boss was mean and would probably get angry if he somehow lost the money, and it wasn't fair that his boss did nothing but lend out money and expect to get more back -- so he buried his silver in the ground and handed it back to the boss unchanged. His boss was furious. "You lazy bum! If you planned on doing nothing with what I gave you, at least you could have put it into the bank and gotten some interest off it," he fumed. Then he took the one talent away from the third employee and gave it to the first, who had already proven his ability to make the most of what he was given. The third employee was, as we put it now, "downsized."

On first glance, the moral of this story seems to be that the boss will kick you when you're down. Harsh. But read a little closer and you'll see some important details. Although not all the employees were given the same amount to work with, they all had the same job: take this money and make some more. Their boss didn't ask them to compete, and he didn't compare one employee's results with any of the others; all he expected was individual improvement. And the third employee cheesed off his boss not because he made no money, but because he made no effort; when he got called on it, his whiny excuse for slacking off was that the situation wasn't fair. But the boss knew all along that the situation wasn't fair -- after all, he set it up. All he wanted from his employee was a willingness to improve, and he didn't get even that. Of course he was ticked.

Rarely does anyone think of the employee in this story who got two silver talents. It would have been easy for him to complain about the unfairness of the situation -- after all, he didn't get as much money as the first guy, and the poor third employee had been given even less than he had; surely that wasn't fair either. But the second employee was wise enough not to compare himself to others. Instead he recognized that if he worked hard and made the most of what he had, it would be not only good for him but beneficial to all involved.

It interests me that the last of the Ten Commandments tells us not to covet other people's stuff. Covetousness is just more obsession with fairness -- "It's not fair that my neighbor has a Maserati, when all I have is a Volkswagen." But there's a specific injunction from Deity not to waste time with this kind of thinking. The alternative? Go get y'own! Stop reacting to what others have or do, and act for yourself. Create a life plan that will bring you happiness. Don't like the fact that you were born dirt-poor and raised on handfuls of hot gravel, while others bathe in champagne and feed caviar to their pets? Well, you could spend your limited life energy moulting and squawking about their decadence -- or you could use that energy to decide what you personally want out of life, map out your goal and start working toward it. Wallowing in self-loathing because you were born in the wealthiest nation per capita on the planet, with well-to-do parents and a luxury lifestyle, while millions struggle to eke out a living? You could throw screamy tantrums against people who live just like you -- or you could harness some of that frustration by deciding how you want to use your inherited wealth and privilege to improve the world. The life-changing questions you must ask yourself are not "Why is life so unfair, and how can I force it to be fair?" but "What can I do to make my life the best it can be, and how can I help others to be happy?"

No, life isn't fair. There are indications that it wasn't meant to be fair. And the sooner you understand and accept this, the sooner you can stop obsessing over trying to make life fair and get on with making it amazing. Our imperfect, unfair lives can still be happy -- not just for ourselves, but also for the people whose lives we are capable of touching for good. So if you will stop clutching obsessively at the mirage of fairness, that frees up your hands to reach out for real happiness. And wouldn't you rather have that anyway?


  1. Fabulous article, Sooz! Such a well written explanation on how life is not fair and what that means. Loved the explanation of the parable of talents too.